The Rule of Two: The best way to navigate choosing team leadership.

By: Connor G. Predmore

In Water Polo, picking the proper team leadership is so important because of the nature of the sport. With only seven players in the water at any given time, individual mistakes can be costly. Each person is required to quickly switch between utilizing fast, controlled aggression with intelligent, purposeful technique. Given their role, team leaders must be especially proficient in these skills. Additionally, they must be able to take a step back from the action, accurately assess a situation and then influence the team’s execution of a particular possession. This is a particularly difficult job to perform in the water, especially while exhausted. Picking the proper leadership to perform this job is vital to a team’s success and can be a challenging task in itself. 

In my experience, I have seen this process carried out a couple of different ways:

  1. Democratically elected- Team leadership is chosen by popular vote. There are several variations on this method, including changing who gets a vote, how many votes an individual voter gets, and how those votes are cast. Generally, this method does a good job of engaging team members in the process and rewards well-liked teammates. Additionally, it imbues the elected leadership with a heightened sense of accountability towards their peers to perform. However, simple popularity contests can be problematic. The opinion of the majority might be misinformed or misguided; in a sense, the blind ought not to lead the blind.
  2. Appointed- Team leadership is granted their position by some external authority. When it comes to sports teams, appointment is not always the worst option for a number of reasons. This method avoids the inevitable disappointment that someone working towards a leadership position may feel when not selected. In this sense, choosing between friends and teammates may be a difficult or burdensome process as opposed to being a desirable opportunity. Appointment may be an effective leadership choosing method for teams with many transitory members, or with high numbers of participation. Simply picking the leadership as a coach may simply be more efficient when dealing much younger athletes where perhaps team captains have little real responsibility. On the other hand, this method takes away some of the players agency. They may feel like they are forced to follow someone they do not think is up to the task. Players may fairly blame those who made that decision, but unfairly blame the leadership who may simply be acting with the best intentions. 

The debate then becomes deciding who is chosen to take up that mantle of leadership. I have seen a few different leadership structures over a breadth of different levels of play and institutional environments:

  1. No captains
  2. One captain
  3. Two Captains

Having no captains does not necessarily mean a team is without leadership. In the absence of captains, I have seen the responsibilities that come with team leadership fall upon the coaching staff in consort with some assortment of the most senior players alongside the most capable players. A team which has different players take up the role of “captains” every time referees call for them before a match is an excellent example. Quite frankly, in my personal experience, I have seen this work unreliably. If those roles and responsibilities are well defined, there may be a higher chance of a positive outcome. More often than not this is the result of either overbearing or non-existent coaching. Respectively, I have seen each devolve into either a team which is unhappy with their coach or a team which is overly concerned with not hurting anybody’s feelings at the expense of achieving meaningful success. 

With just one captain it is essential that team members respect, not just “like”, this individual. He or she should possess proficient leadership skills and should be able to fulfill the obligations which come with that position. Otherwise, problems begin to arise. There are certainly some advantages; decisions require less deliberation, there is continuity and consistency in the direction they wish to push the team, and little confusion should exist about where information comes from. The organization will only benefit from this system if the optimal person is chosen for the job… granted they are even available.

A two-captain system distributes the burden of the responsibilities of leadership between two people instead of letting them all fall on just one. This framework turns the responsibility of team leadership into a team exercise in its own rite; those captains must find an effective way to manage and utilize their own dynamic in addition to that of the team as a whole. If this relationship cannot find a foothold, simple disagreements and missteps may have an exaggerated negative effect on team cohesion, compared to those made by a coach or even a lone captain. Inconsistent leadership resulting from two leaders not on the same page is difficult for a team to succeed with. 

I have seen each methodology in practice over the course of the last 15 years of my Water Polo and Swimming career. There are valid arguments and situations for most of them; no two programs are the same. There are many situations or conditions which could mean one process is simply more feasible than another. That being said, it is my assertion that the best process usually involves democratically electing two captains… with some stipulations.

  1. The captains-elect must want the leadership position, i.e. they must run for it.
  2. Votes must be cast in a confidential manner.
  3. Voters shall only be those players who will be participating on the team during the season they are electing captains for. Coaching staff and exiting senior team members shall not have a vote.
  4. Voters shall cast one vote per captain.
  5. Votes shall be cast in a “blind” manner

Here’s why.

It is generally difficult to argue the merits of a process where as many voices as is reasonable can be heard when deciding the group’s leadership. If players can have a say about who will be leading them through the next season, they will surely be more likely to support them. In the case where that player’s opinion does not mirror the outcome, they may be less likely to cause open contention out of respect for the opinions of their teammates. I advocate for the exclusion of particular parties from voting simply because those parties will not be directly following the leadership in question. Additionally, confidential voting will serve to decrease the likelihood that someone’s opinion may be altered intentionally or unintentionally by the opinions of others.

The opportunity for two individuals to promote each other’s strengths and supplement each others’ weaknesses is invaluable. No one is perfect, and having two leaders allows the team to benefit from the best qualities of each. Also, it takes all of the responsibility of leadership off the shoulders of one person… and there’s a lot of it. Leading a team as captain is not just about giving a good pre-game hype speech and deciding how to pick teams for a scrimmage. It involves constant presence, physically and mentally. They’ve got to say the right things at the right times, and they’ve got to be tactful intermediaries between coaches and players. It is difficult for anyone, particularly a younger or less experienced person, to successfully engage with all of these challenges without a peer’s helping set of eyes and ears. 

The stipulation that one captain is senior while the other is more junior is one that I had not thought of until recently. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think of it at all; it was a suggestion to me by one of my players. It makes a lot of sense though. One of the biggest challenges any team captain, particularly those on self-governed collegiate club teams, face is the initial transitional shock of taking up a leadership position. When put into a leadership position, an individual has to begin concerning themselves with all of the aforementioned responsibilities in addition to now dealing with the behind-the-scenes administrative headaches that come along with running a team. There is a significant learning curve there that every newly elected team captain must navigate and overcome. Sometimes, it takes half a season or more for someone to get the hang of it. 

By implementing a system where one of those elected captains will remain on the team the following year, future headaches caused by that shock and subsequent learning curve can be mitigated because there is already one individual who has “been there and done that.” This makes possible the opportunity for leadership experience to be passed down from year to year within a team. Instead of constantly guessing who might be good at the job, senior captains will inadvertently help mentor the next year’s leadership. Coaches and players may come and go, but in this way the lessons they have already learned may remain. Therefore, this process is not just effective for the year in question, but can help establish longevity and continuity in programs that see a new class of participants every year.

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